Today is special. We celebrate the 16th Century Reformation that resulted from Martin Luther’s study of scripture and his concern that certificates of the forgiveness of sin were available for a price. As a result of his study, pastors began to preach a new Gospel. Beginning with congregations and pastors in northern Germany, there was a realization that God freely forgives sin. We call that idea as being the result of God’s grace.
When I was in seminary 1952-1955, the movement in the church which we call the Reformation was celebrated with big services of worship and sermons on how God continues to bless Lutherans. There has been a considerable retreat from that rather self-serving thought.
God does not look upon us Lutherans as being favored because we believe we are saved by the grace of God through the faith that God gives to all his children. But the ice began to thaw between Roman Catholics and Lutherans. For the last 50 years, , we prefer to rejoice over what binds us together in the worldwide church rather than dig up what divides us from some other people of God.
We do well to look more at ourselves and our response to the grace of God. In the story from John, Jesus was talking with some Jews who believed in him. But he would not let well enough alone. These Jews were friendly to him, and Jesus wanted to ask questions about their belief.
He said, “If you continue in my word, that will make you my disciples, not merely saying that you believe.” “Then you will know the truth, and it is the truth that will make you free.”
If Jesus had stopped without adding that last, he might have found half a dozen more people for his congregation, we might say. But in fact, he insulted his prospective followers by insinuating that they were not free of their past and instead of really joining him, following him, believing in him as they should, they were still slaves of sin.
The only way to freedom was through him. That was too much. He was talking about their relationship to God and they wanted to talk about their descent from Abraham. He was saying, “If you want to be my disciples, go along this route.” They were saying “we don’t want to do that because we believe it is enough that we are descended from Abraham.”
Luther believed he had found in scripture a different understanding of the love and grace of God. He believed God loves his people. God cares for his people. There is nothing we can do to makeourselves deserving of God’s grace.
God has provided ways by which his grace is freely bestowed. We call those the means of grace and there’s nothing magical about them, although they certainly remain a spiritual mystery.
One of the great Baptist preachers of the 19th century was Charles Spurgeon. He said, “It is true that the Lord can work with the faultiest kind of instrumentality. But we must act as his plainer dispensations instruct us. And one of the facts, clear enough, is that the Lord usually adopts means to ends.
“From which the plain lesson is that we shall be likely to accomplish most when we are in the best spiritual condition, or in other words, we shall usually do our Lord’s work best when our gifts and graces are in good order, and we shall do worst when they are most out of trim.”
So while God can do whatever he pleases, we ought to be thankful for those places where he acts plainly and simply.
We recognize three specific gifts from God. First, his message of grace is spelled out in the Bible in all the stories of the Old Testament as well as the new.
Second, God’s grace is delivered to us in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These actions are the carriers of God’s grace, love, mercy and the promise of salvation The Bread and Wine illustrate the nourishment for our faith, as surely as Jesus gave his Body and Blood, the sacrifice of himself. These gifts are the assurance of the forgiveness of sins. What could be plainer or simpler? People who enjoy these gifts do not complain that God ought to have some other plan, or some other track of salvation, nor do they complain that God ought to be satisfied with a half-hearted response.
Jesus says to the Jews who believed in him, you are on the wrong track to plead that your being a descendant of Abraham is all you need for freedom from sin.
“You need my word. You need the kind of freedom that only the Son of God can bring.”
The first thing Abraham learned from God was that God wanted him to move. “Pack up everything and move toward a land of Promise. Then we’ll talk about what’s next.” But some children of God want to tie God down, to make him hold still as a relic from the past, to become predictable, easy to work with, and give them no new challenges.
This thing of wanting to tie God down is a modern sin of idol building. Jeremiah talked about idols being like scarecrows in a cucumber field.
“They cannot speak. They have to be carried, for they cannot walk. But the Lord is a true God. He is the living God.”
We have idols of old habits, erroneous beliefs, or outdated customs, or opinions that have no basis in either facts or the word of God. If we could just tie God down, get him in place and make him stay there, then we wouldn’t have all these current arguments about whether women can be pastors, or whether priests can marry, or whether people of every sexual orientation are welcome in our congregations. Our God who lives always has new challenges and new questions out in front of us, questions that go beyond what might have been good enough yesterday.
There’s a short poem that addresses that same point .. “I met a little elf man once, Down where the lilies blow. I asked him why he was so small, and why he didn’t grow.
“He cocked his head and with his eye, he looked me through and through. I’m quite as big for me, said he, as you are big for you.”
What was big enough, or good enough, or right enough for someone else in another age and place may not be the challenge we must face today. The God who is always restless was not finished with his own work at Mt. Sinai when he brought the people out of Egypt. He promised a new covenant that would be the writing of the law not in stone but upon the hearts of the people. That new covenant was made real in the person of Jesus Christ.
Truth and freedom are to be found in him, but he is an unrelenting master and Lord. When Paul wrote to the Philippians that Jesus Christ is Lord, everybody understood Lord to mean total authority. Jesus is in charge. He is a master who answers to no one else and asks no advice or assistance. Trust and freedom for us today do not mean that we are free to go in any direction, any track, trying to force God to follow our method of salvation.
Rather we have been freed from the tyranny of our sins by the freely given grace of God in order to become his people with directions for how we should live.
If we are his people, then we are responsible for what we do with life because the blameless blood of Jesus Christ has purchased us.
We who appreciate Luther and his witness in the Reformation must ask, “What new challenges does our restless God put before us today? “Have we built idols of habit or resistance or practice that prevent us from dealing with the living God?”
Customs, personal choices, prejudices, narrow vision, spiritual near-sightedness all keep us enslaved. We are not free.
Are we willing to follow Jesus the restless Lord? Being in the presence of God offers hope and promise. We might also wish, and hope, that our reasons for coming here are at least in line with the way someone described a camp meeting a hundred and fifty years ago in the Kentucky wilderness.
A church historian has written, “They came, the settlers from the fields and forests, looking for a rare chance to hobnob with neighbors unseen for a year at a stretch. They came for entertainment in the form of rousing sermons and a chance to let out feelings that were cramped up by a hog-and-hominy grits existence.
“But it is important to remember that fundamentally they came expecting to be converted by divine influence. Put simply, they came expecting a miracle.”
Now, God calls us to be his people. We are each called. Let us then pray that we come to worship, to our daily prayers, to our daily work — let us come to each day expecting to be continually converted by divine influence to what we have it in us, at our best, to become. The reformation will arrive in us when we meet God in our accustomed rounds and there expect a miracle of re-formation.
The miracle is that God has called us to be baptized by water and the spirit. We continue our adoption by God in the family of the Christian church where we experience the power of the Holy Spirit.
We shall be lifted up from the casual use of the name Christian into a continual freedom in following the way of Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God.